Today in the United States, a soul crushing regime of testing and zero tolerance discipline policies is descending on the nation's public schools. Students from pre-K up are being tested and evaluated with great regularity to make them "college and career ready," at the expense of things they love like art and music and school trips, and their natural impulses to play and dream and rebel are being met with extreme punitive measures ranging from docking kindergartners from shaking their butt at a fellow student to arresting a high school student for wearing a hat in the hall. The people developing these policies claim they are doing this to turn America's youth into a globally competitive labor force, but whether or not that is their goal ( some think this is just a profit grab for test and technology companies!) the result is that America's young people are increasingly facing schools that are turning into grim and joyless places where disciplining students and breaking their spirits seem to be more important than inspiring them with a love of learning.
Parents and teachers are legitimately fearful that a whole generation of the nation's youth will be crushed by these measures. And they are right to be both indignant and alarmed. But the students who are the targets of these policies may be less malleable than the power that be think! The students test boycotts and marches currently taking place in Chicago and Philadelphia are a sign of emerging student resistance, but if history is any guide that resistance is likely to get much much broader and take forms that no one could predict.
I want to tell a little story that illustrates why it is never wise to underestimate young people's creativity. It might have a few lessons for us today.
The scene is the Bronx in the early and mid 70's. Young people there are living in communities that have been abandoned by government and private capital. Landlords are abandoning their building and torching them for the insurance money Fire houses are closing while neighborhoods are burning. The parks budget has been cut in half, and the great after school programs that were once the pride of NYC public schools have been shut down.
But one of the worst things that happening was the shutting down of the great music programs in NYC middle schools and high schools. For two generations, young people who made the band or orchestra in junior high could take home musical instruments to practice, and got instruction from teachers who were themselves great musicians. Now those instruments were locked in school basements, and the music teachers fired or reassigned to other jobs. Young people in the Bronx whose parents or older siblings had become great jazz, or salsa, or rhythm and blues musicians were now denied the same training. There were fears that the music might shut down entirely
But the young people of the Bronx surprised the world. Denied the opportunity to learn to play instruments, they created a new form of music using two turn tables and a mixer that would revolutionize the world! Starting in community centers of housing projects DJ's, many of them from West Indian origins, figured out how to take the most percussive instrumental sections of records and have them blend seamlessly into one another for 10-15 straight minutes, creating hyper-danceable tracks that droves Bronx young people wild. Then, taking advantage of over taxed police forces, they took their parties into parks and schoolyards getting electricity from the bottom of lamp posts. Soon, there were competing parties all over the Bronx and DJ's launched another innovation- getting poetically gifted young people to rhyme over the beats! Before you knew it the sheer brilliance of these young people had spawned new dance styles representing a mixture of martial arts, and the moves of great Latin dancers and James Brown! The word soon spread to Harlem and Brooklyn and the punk scene in Lower Manhattan and that global phenomenon known as Hip Hop was born.
Created by young people who the rest of the world had abandoned and written off.
Today, things may seem grim in our schools today. but be prepared to be surprised again. Young people will not be silenced and their natural creativity will NOT be erased